From the late 80s to the end of the 90s, top-down arcade football games were the king. The fast-paced action closely resembled my experiences of playground ‘kick and rush’ football and the five-minute matches were perfect for mini tournaments with friends. Two joysticks, a keen group of friendly rivals, and your 16-bit machine of choice were all that was needed for an afternoon of fun. The original Kick Off and its successor Kick Off 2 had all that in large doses, so my main question to answer approaching this review was: does this ‘revival’ capture the magic of the original?
It certainly has the fast-pace. In my first match, my player got the ball, ran up the pitch and… lost the ball as soon as he tried to turn. This acted as a reminder that the original Kick Off was never a ‘pick up and play’ game. It had the innovation of the player kicking the ball slightly ahead of him as he ran, demanding a level of finesse to dribble, pass, move, and shoot. After a couple of awful matches in which my players were sliding all over the place unable to string more than two passes together, it became clear that I would need to head to the tutorial section to hone my skills and get used to the controls (for the record, I was playing this with a Steam Controller).
The tutorials at first glance are comprehensive. They cover close control of the ball, passing, dribbling, shooting, tackling and more. Each section comes with a description of how to perform the action and a challenge to try out. It took me ages to get through the first few challenges successfully. Take dribbling for example – you are tasked with keeping the ball as close to the centre of a circle floating around the pitch like a spotlight. This requires partial pushing of the analogue stick in the right direction, being careful not to go too fast and over-kick the ball as you do so. It took several attempts to get it and even then, I was prone to losing control of the ball all too easily.
The tagline for the game is “playing it is easy, mastering it will take time – a lot of time.” At this point, I wasn’t even finding the playing easy! Perhaps it is my approach to football these days. In my veteran playing mode, I go for a more patient passing game but I began to wonder if I had enough patience for this.
Nevertheless, I persisted with the tutorials only to find the last few on shooting high and low, swerving the ball, adding top spin, and free kicks were read only with no exercise. There was a free practice option but no training for these modes. I would have to work on these skills in the matches. Returning to the match mode, I was able to move the ball around the pitch a bit better than my first attempts but that lack of shooting practice showed as I kept hitting shots over the bar or straight at the keeper.
The main issue I have with the game is not the difficulty level though. It is in a sense refreshing to have to put effort into a game instead of going straight into a goal fest. My main issue instead was the lack of official controller support. Back in the day, I used an eight-direction digital joystick with a single fire button and it was fine. With this game, a decision has been made to keep that single button control for the most part. You press and hold to keep the ball under close control, you tap to pass, head, or shoot depending on the position of the ball and your movement on the analogue stick. However, another decision has been made to use the full functions of the analogue stick. How much you move it affects the speed of your run and the power or height of your shot. This seems counter-intuitive to me. Either replicate the classic digital joystick controls or allow for use of different buttons. Add in the fact that there is no official Steam Controller configuration and the controls are not easy to get to grips with at all.
The single button feature causes chaos in game at times for the new player. In most matches, the pitch looked like the victim in a slasher horror film due to all the diagonal lines from my players inadvertently launching into huge slides when I was trying to steal the ball or pass (though there is an option to have these fade away or not appear at all). Other things that bugged me in game were the loooooong time goal kicks and long balls hang in the air, and the referee’s annoying habit of calling play back for a free kick about five seconds after a foul. Oh, and the difficultly I was having in getting the ball on target and past the keeper.
I eventually got a win through a last-minute slice of luck, sliding in when a defender lost the ball to send it into the back of the net. That gave me that old buzz I remember from those football games of old. It had taken me several hours to get there but it was something.
There are options to engage in single player and two-player matches or simulate the most recent European Championship. An option to create custom tournament is sorely lacking though. Online multiplayer is where the game has the potential to be most fun. There are options to invite Steam friends to play or find a random opponent. I had mixed results with this, however, often waiting ages for a match and just reverting to single player instead, which wasn’t much fun.
This could be a fun game if you have the time to master it. The learning curve is steep verging on impossible and several hours of mastering the controls and honing your skills will be needed to get to a level where you can begin to be competitive. If you have the patience for that (or you can pick these things up more quickly than me!), there will (hopefully) be a satisfying pay-off and that old magic of the original Kick Off will be truly revived. If you have neither the time nor patience to master the game, your experience is likely to be much more frustrating than buoyed by nostalgia. With a more forgiving learning curve and better controller support, this could be a classic in its own right but, for now, it’s just a retro football action game that sorely needs more balance.
REVIEW CODE: A complimentary PC code was provided to Bonus Stage for this review. Please send all review code enquiries to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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